Scripture is not its own genre. Some scriptural texts are letters, some are songs or descriptions of rituals and liturgies, some poetry. Many sections are historical narratives, but others fall into the classification of “wisdom literature,” a genre that has completely different goals from historical accounts and a radically different view of what is or is not “true.” For ancient readers, these different genres of texts all within the Bible itself or as sections within particular books/chapters, were quite recognizable. They understood textual clues, such as phrases equivalent to today’s “Once upon a time,” or would notice noun or verb forms that are highly stylized and primarily employed in mythic stories. Hence they encountered many signals that we miss because of our lack of familiarity with the original languages, the vast cultural differences between then and now, or because, as is the case with the King James Version of the Bible, the translators omitted textual forms that set off sections as the various genres change.
Many of the observations outlined above come from the discipline of “literary criticism” or from those who look at scripture through literary lenses. Approaching scripture in this way, the attention falls upon the text itself. How did the author of each text shape his or her story? What did he/she leave out? How did the author intend this text to be read? We, as human beings, cannot help but bring our current eyes to each text and to fill in the gaps that are there, and to read with certain assumptions that may or may not be accurate or helpful. The best we can do is be aware that this is what we are doing, and in this awareness mitigate the distortions as much as possible.
In this episode, Michael Austin and Boyd Jay Petersen join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon for a discussion of many wonderful things that literary lenses can reveal about scriptural texts. In what ways do certain aspects come alive for us, helping us see what we missed before? How does a reading more in line with its original context force us out of our comfort zones and into new questions and a frame of mind where we might gain new insights or have a fresh encounter with Spirit? As case studies, Michael helps us work through the Book of Job, and Boyd offers insights into the David and Bathsheba narrative.
Please listen and then ask questions or share your reactions below!
Michael Austin, Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem (Greg Kofford Books, 2014)